My Life in Books
I’ve lived in Manhattan for twenty years. After all of this time, it can be easy to feel jaded or take for granted all the events that happen on any given night in this city. But last year I got an invitation that made my heart pound and reverted me back to a wide-eyed teenager: my friend called and said she had an extra ticket to the 80th birthday celebration for Judy Blume and would I like to go. Would I like to go? My first thought was, how can Judy Blume be eighty years old? My second was: I’m going to see Judy Blume!
The celebration took place in a theater on the Upper West Side. Even though it was pouring rain and Super Bowl Sunday, the place was packed (I joked with my friend that this was our Super Bowl.) And there, sitting across the aisle, was JUDY BLUME! Seeing her in person, feeling a connection to this woman I’d never met before, I realized she had taught me more about growing up than my own mother. And in the front of the theater, all of Judy’s original book covers from the 1970s and 1980s were projected onto a big screen. When that old purple version of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret flashed in front of me, I was transported to my childhood.
I remember when I discovered Judy Blume. My father took me out for breakfast every Saturday to a coffee shop in the Wynnewood Shopping Center. Afterwards we always went to the small bookstore. I can picture the narrow wooden bookshelves filled with paperbacks: The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger, Fifteen by Beverly Cleary, Breaking Up by Norma Klein, and My First Love and Other Disasters by Francine Pascal. These were the magical books that explored everything I couldn’t talk about but needed to understand: love, friendship, sex, self-doubt, and the world that waited beyond elementary school. I would slide the book across the counter to the cashier while my father eyed the titles a little suspiciously before ultimately giving in and letting me choose my own reading material.
By eighth grade, struggling in math and dealing with typical middle school angst, I discovered two books that offered not only a glimpse of the adult world that awaited me, but stories of female reinvention, glamour, and excitement: Scruples by Judith Krantz and Chances by Jackie Collins. The only problem was that these novels would definitely not get past my father’s scrutiny. My only hope was to borrow them from the library and slip a different, innocuous book jacket over the completely inappropriate reading material. It worked! My covert operation was worth the effort: the glamorous worlds brought to life by these two dynamic women writers made me dream of becoming an author myself one day.
In high school, I discovered my first favorite male author in Sidney Sheldon (the ending of Master of the Game kept me awake at night.) I read Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar (and again thought about becoming a writer and what it meant to have dreams.) My father and I finally had a few books in common when I began reading Nelson DeMille.
As an English major at The George Washington University, I worked my way through the canon of American literature. In my (very limited) spare reading time, I was drawn to family stories – maybe because I was away from home for the first time. I delved into sprawling sagas like The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher and The Wheel of Fortune by Susan Howatch. (I named my firstborn Bronwen, after one of the characters in this book.)
After college I interviewed for a job at HarperCollins Publishers and on the Amtrak train from Philly to New York City I read Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon. When I got the job, I felt like the paperback I’d been carrying was my good luck charm and I still have it to this day. While at HarperCollins I had the thrill of reading authors the house was publishing, like Susan Isaacs Lily White and Jillian Medoff’s debut novel Hunger Point. I went to book readings and book parties three or four times a week. The publishing industry in the late nineties seems like a golden era of books now that I’m looking back at it. The highlight for me was a 1997 book party for one of my childhood author icons: Sidney Sheldon! It was at Le Cirque, where as a young publicity assistant I was able to rub elbows with luminaries like Barbara Walters. When someone made a toast about Sidney Sheldon’s towering career, all I could think was that I still wanted to become an author myself someday, and I wondered how to get there. In the meantime, I kept reading.
My boss at HarperCollins started a book club comprised of her current and former assistants. One of our picks was A Spanish Lover and I discovered the wonderful family dramas of Joanna Trollope. I became a devotee of another book club, The Oprah Book Club, and was in awe of White Oleander by Janet Fitch.
When my second daughter was born in 2004, a friend knew I probably needed a good book to keep me company when I was up in the middle of the night. She gave me Emily Giffin’s debut Something Borrowed. As life became busier and more complicated, the main criterion for the books I read was escapism. Sometime around 2012 I discovered the author who would come to dominate my TBR: Elin Hilderbrand. The first book I read of hers was Silver Girl and I went on to read her entire backlist. In 2016, when I published my novel The Wedding Sisters, Elin Hilderbrand was kind enough to give me a blurb. It’s not an overstatement to say it was a life-changing moment for me. It made this writing thing feel real. It made me feel like an author.
Today, the novels I write are all influenced by the indelible books that have come before my own. Stories of mothers and daughters and girls with dreams and falling in love and big cities and small towns and obstacles and joy. The funny thing is that I always imagined that if the day came that I published my own novels they would be the books that mattered to me the most. The truth is, I still hold most dear the books I read while hiding in my childhood bedroom, dreaming of the woman and the writer I might become. And as I realized the night of the Judy Blume birthday celebration, I’m part of a vast tribe of book lovers who mark the stages of their lives by the novels they have read. All of us in the room that night experienced both collective memories and intensely personal ones. That is the power of books. I can only hope that over time, the books I write touch readers enough to become part of their life stories. That someday, a reader might see one of my old book covers and be able to say, I remember when.
I hope you'll join me as I continue my journey as a reader and a writer!